NAIROBI -- Africa's longest-running conflict officially ended yesterday as representatives of the Sudanese government and rebel forces signed a comprehensive peace accord that gives the southern part of the country religious and political autonomy and a share of Sudan's oil riches.
Under brilliant sunshine, African leaders, diplomats, and thousands of dancing and chanting Sudanese refugees gathered at a stadium in Nairobi to watch Sudan's first vice president, Ali Uthman Muhammad Taha, and the leader of the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army, John Garang, sign the agreement.
The two-decade civil war, which pitted the Islamic government against rebels based in the mostly animist and Christian south, left 2 million people dead, primarily from famine and disease, and 4 million homeless.
Under the accord, Islamic law will apply to the north but not the south. The south will have a six-year interim period of self-rule, after which it will vote in a referendum on whether to remain part of Sudan or secede. The agreement also calls for Garang to become Sudan's first vice president, replacing Taha.
Both sides face challenges in implementing the agreement, which includes enacting a new constitution and downsizing and integrating rebel forces.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, representing the United States, also signed the agreement as a witness. Christian evangelical groups, a key part of President Bush's political base, had pressed hard for a resolution, and the administration had made a peace agreement one of its top diplomatic priorities.
The deal does not address an unrelated conflict in the Darfur region of western Sudan, where tens of thousands of people have died of malnutrition and disease in the past year. In that crisis, according to human rights groups, the government and a militia it supports have terrorized the region in an effort to put down a separate rebel movement.
Powell told the audience in Nairobi that the two sides "must work together immediately to end the violence and atrocities that continue to occur in Darfur -- not next month or in the interim period, but right away, starting today."
Powell said the United States hoped to improve relations with Sudan, which is under US sanctions, but warned that "achieving this positive relationship will only be possible in the context of peace throughout the entire country."
President Mwai Kibaki of Kenya declared that the signing "marked the beginning of a new and bright future for Sudan." He said the marathon peace process, which started with talks in Kenya in early 2002, "demonstrates the power of dialogue and exposes the futility of war" for the rest of Africa.
Kibaki acknowledged that the two sides "will continue to face many trials in the implementation of the agreement."
Several hundred thousand Sudanese refugees live in Kenya. Sudanese spectators swarmed the soccer field during the somewhat chaotic ceremony in a melange of colorful headdresses, many decorated with shells and large feathers. Others were dressed in war paint or wore ankle shakers made of beverage containers.
Young men chanted about the prosperity of peace as they danced while holding shields fashioned in the colors of the Sudanese rebel army. One dancer held a shield that appeared to be decorated with the emblems of the US Agency for International Development, which has coordinated $2 billion in humanitarian relief to Sudan since 1983.
The terrible cost of the war was also evident by the former soldiers at the ceremony, many of whom were missing legs or limped across the field.
The object of the agreement is to keep Sudan intact, since the prospect the south will secede is intended to put pressure on the government to uphold its end of the bargain. In a carefully negotiated compromise, an autonomous government is to emerge in the south while new national institutions are created.
But Sudanese refugees interviewed during the ceremony said they believed the peace deal meant that in six years southern Sudan would become an independent nation.
"The southern Sudan is going to be independent by the will of God," declared the Rev. Tut Nguoth, carrying his 2-year-old son and holding an SPLA rebel flag.
The Rev. James Tor, 32, said he joined the SPLA when he was 12. A year later, he went to Ethiopia for three years of military training. "At 19 years, I joined the fight," he said. At 22, "I returned to church activities."
Tor scoffed at the idea that southern Sudan would remain part of the country. "It was southern Sudan they were fighting for," he said. "They were not fighting for Garang to be vice president or some other thing."
David Mozersky, a Nairobi-based analyst for the International Crisis Group, said the agreement "was very positive, but in a sense the hardest part is still ahead." He said the first test will be the drafting of a new constitution during a six-month "preinterim" period. There are concerns over whether the parties will meet the deadline and whether the negotiations will be inclusive.
Mozersky said that the rebel movement currently lacks the capabilities and institutions to form a government and that the government has "questionable political will" to abide by the agreement. Moreover, he said, implementing the deal "will be made that much more difficult, if not impossible, unless Darfur is resolved."